By: Tiffany King
October 17, 2022

Coral Ecology Explorations

Just imagine. Going to Hawaii, soaking in some sun, taking in the ocean views, and swimming among the coral reefs. Wellthat’s exactly what Coastal Georgia alum David Armstrong did, but he wasn’t on vacation. He was researching coral reef ecology as part of his doctoral program at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Doing research in Hawaii has always been a goal of his, and now he’s doing it.

Armstrong is originally from Buford, Georgia, and came to the College because of its opportunities and affordability.

“I knew my options for marine science in Georgia were limited, and I wanted to stay in-state to keep it cheaper. Coastal was a perfect fit,” Armstrong said. “It was either Coastal or UGA, and at the end of the day, I didn’t want a big school or big class sizes. I wanted to keep it more intimate and geared towards science. Whenever I visited Coastal, there was no better place to study the ocean than right next to it.”

Armstrong graduated May 2022 with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences and with a minor in environmental science. He’s now a doctoral student at Texas A&M working under Dr. Keisha Bahr, who oversees The Bahr Lab, which focuses on researching coral reef ecology. Overall, coral reefs can support thousands of species of fish, invertebrates, plants, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals. Called the “rainforests of the sea” because of its diverse habitats, about 25 percent of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs for shelter and food. Coral reefs also protect coastlines from storms and erosion, and are also a source of food and medicine. Armstrong’s dissertation will focus on coral reef ecology responses to ocean acidification.

“There’s a lot of other climate shift research out there, but we’re just gearing it towards ocean acidification because we feel that it’s going to be one of the big-ticket stressors in the future,” he said.

His work will explore the physiology of coral, such as the different layers of tissues, and how those are playing a role in mitigating or emphasizing the effects of ocean acidification.

“We just got some micro sensors which we’re going to gear into the coral and use for some of the first times ever in trying to characterize different boundary layers on the tissues,” Armstrong said. “We do all that out at our field site in Hawaii.”

Armstrong attends classes at Texas A&M and does all the field research in Hawaii at the Hawaiian Institute for Marine Biology. Students of the Bahr Lab are also working alongside students from the University of Hawaii at Manoa—funded through the Proton Flux Hypothesis grant, created by Dr. Paul Jokiel, a renowned coral reef scientist. Armstrong will be at the field site four months out of the year for experiments—two months in the summer and two in the winter, with the possibility of being able to go for shorter amounts of time in between. He’s currently writing a grant that will allow him to do research in Hawaii more often.

A Goal Achieved

Doing research in Hawaii has been a longtime dream of Armstrong’s. Although raised in Georgia, his whole family is from Hawaii, and he has traveled there over the years for reunions.

 “I’ve always loved Hawaii and I’m just so happy to be studying there. Whenever we went to Hawaii, and as I got older, I really wanted to do research out there or study something with the marine life. It’s been a long-term goal—I’ve definitely been working towards that,” he said.

Although he stayed busy doing fieldwork this summer, Armstrong was able to hang out with his cousins when he had breaks and go on hikes. His family is very excited to see him pursuing his goals in Hawaii, while also doing something he enjoys.

 “My family loves it,” he said. “They send me little articles all the time about opportunities they see out there in Hawaii. They are super happy.”

Another goal is to have a career as a researcher or professor. After earning his doctorate, he plans on doing postdoc work, field-based research, and then make his way towards becoming a professor.

“Those were my goals going into Coastal. Getting that experience from the professors there and seeing how the whole faculty go about teaching smaller class sizes, it inspired me to go into that profession,” he said.

Armstrong also shared that the amount of field experience he had as a student—because of the small class sizes and service-learning projects—helped him gain an understanding of field-based research.

“A lot of the equipment we’re using now is similar to what we have available to us at Coastal. We’re using YSI probes, and Coastal got their YSI probes a year or two before I graduated, so I got time to work with those,” Armstrong said. “That was helpful because about 50 percent of the data we’re collecting in Hawaii is with a YSI probe. I think general field knowledge, and advice in passing from the faculty from their experiences, really helped me put my foot in the door for this kind of research.”

Armstrong enjoyed his time at the College. His favorite Coastal moment involves caving with his hydrology class. They went to the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia (TAG) caves, and went caving with the former principal investigator of Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Dr. James Deemy. Students learned about his experiences, saw the caves he was researching in, and did hydrology fieldwork there.

“I think that was my favorite moment. We got to camp up there and it was great,” Armstrong said. “We also went to the Chattanooga Aquarium, as part of Dr. Takagi’s (assistant professor of environmental science) aquatic biology course. The whole experience there was great.”

Sticking to the Path

His advice to current students is to continue to work towards what you want to be after graduation.

“As long as you finish your degree and stick on the path, and trust the process, you’ll find your way,” he said. “Don’t stress out too much if you don’t have a direction yet. If you’re going into science and don’t know what you want to research, it’s okay. I’m talking to people who are getting their PhD and are totally switching gears on what they want to do. There are so many options out there. Try to stick on your path and let it take you wherever it takes you.”

As for Armstrong, his path includes doing more research on the Hawaiian reef, focusing on conservation strategies, and furthering the knowledge about coral reefs before it’s too late.

“I want to try to do as much research as possible for these animals in my lifetime, and then work towards teaching people about coral reefs,” he said. “I want to try to influence people to love them a little more.”